During my time at work, I am constantly witnessing students behave. They behave well. They behave raucously. They behave poorly. They appear happy, sad, stressed out, excited, bored, engaged, disengaged and, so often, very, very tired. I teach two blocks of English 12 and work the other five blocks in the Library Learning Commons. My class is a somewhat relaxed place, as is our LLC. Hence, I often, kind of, see teenagers being themselves—often, kind of. While our student body at Hamber is very kind and good natured, we are also a very urban school in a large city. The students are diverse, made up of many ethnicities and coming from all kinds of cultural, economic and educational backgrounds. In our current environment, with all the electronic accoutrements most of us have at our fingertips, I keep asking the same question: is technology actually making us better people; is it helping society? And I am not sure it is.
To be sure, for many of us, technology will not change our lives much. A bit for the worse, but mostly for the better. But I see my students struggle to participate in class discussions, and face the exercise of note-taking as if it were an insurmountable task. I see them buckle under the bullying we never see as teachers. I see them return from holidays and take profound and immense pleasure from seeing their friends face to face—because they have not seen them for the entirety of the holiday! Indeed, these things are nothing new, and all these examples are road blocks students have been confronting for a long time; but they are different than they used to be, in that the sheer number of students experiencing these difficulties had increased dramatically.
There is no doubt that for some of my students, the digital life allows them to give in to their introversion, worry less about their aggression and be more insulated from their peers. In Quiet, by Susan Cain, we learn that being introverted is not only okay, but beneficial. And we should respect introverts. However, while I wholeheartedly subscribe to allowing my students to be themselves, I also believe that school needs to take kids out of their comfort zone. In school, we need to get introverts to speak up, and, conversely, extroverts need to allow others to speak. The bigger worry to me is that students are learning that they can possess an anonymity online that does not always lead to the most responsible habits.
One of the most horrific online behaviours is quite obviously trolling—the aggressive, heartless kind. Adults are modelling some of the worst things I’ve ever seen. And that means kids are doing it too. Bullying has changed into something even more insidious in some ways. We sometimes have kids saying things to each other, en masse, that are shocking to even me. (I grew up in Edmonton, in the seventies, and firmly believe that Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is almost Disneyesque in its portrayal of that time.) We know now that this kind of bad behaviour is exacerbated by the fact that we are not face-to-face with people.
And this, too, is a real problem. Our digital lives make is easier to stay connected to each other when we cannot have contact in person. And for some messages, posts, ideas that we share on-line, I doubt that we need more. However, when is a digital life supplanting a real life? And what are the ramifications for allowing a digital life to take the place of more genuine human contact?
To all these ends, I would like to further explore Digital Literacy, ethical online behavior, evaluation and critique of online resources, and digital identities as starting points for exploration. In one way or another, these ideas all circle around understanding the internet and our digital selves better.